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Veteran Gives Wings to Aspiring Pilots, Charts New Mission

Jake Norotsky can get real with students in his aviation program because he’s been there. While still a senior in high school, he balanced schoolwork, a full-time job, and National Guard weekend drills five hours away.

If any of Jake’s students show hesitation in achieving their dreams of flying high, Jake shares his own journey from disadvantaged student to flight instructor on Army Blackhawk helicopters. His passion and skills — including more than 2,000 flight hours — have been tested through hard work and perseverance. More recently, Jake’s lifelong focus on serving others turned his teaching into a calling.

“When I communicate with students, I can empathize without pity,” Jake said. “When I speak to them, there’s credibility because I was a student with big dreams and only $3 in my pocket.”

Jake came from an abusive home and took refuge with his brother and his sister-in-law during his last year of high school. They helped provide stability and guidance. “I learned about family, found strength, and figured out who I was,” Jake recalled. “If it weren’t for my brother, Chris, and my sister-in-law, Lisa, I don’t know where I’d be.” 

Jake signed on with the Pennsylvania National Guard as a trumpet player while still in school. In between schoolwork and drills, he played trumpet in the Army National Guard Band. Over the next few years, he also played taps at many funerals. This experience helped him develop a strong sense of responsibility to serve his country. He realized he wanted to contribute more.

“We were playing at departure events for other soldiers. I saw the look in their eyes and thought, man, I need to go.”

When his time was up with the National Guard, Jake reenlisted in active-duty Army and worked hard to pursue his childhood dream of flying. His first Army job was helicopter mechanic. He learned everything there was to know about taking apart an engine and putting it back together – and he did it in the harsh Iraqi desert. He got noticed and was selected to be part of a Blackhawk helicopter crew, eventually flying missions, and serving as an instructor.

While deployed to Iraq, Jake saw his share of fighting and medical evacuations. For years after leaving active duty, he wore a bracelet in remembrance of a fellow soldier who fought alongside him and died in his helicopter while being transported to a military hospital. The difficult experiences did not diminish his determination to serve.

“If I don’t go, somebody else has to,” Jake would tell himself. “Even when I came back from deployments and after I got out of the military, seeing others go off to war was difficult because I felt I should be there, too.”

After Action
After 14 years of active duty, Jake moved to Alabama to attend Auburn University and used his GI Bill benefits to continue pursuing his love of flying. Jakes’s military time made him comfortable in the cockpit of a small plane and he excelled at his flight training. He started teaching. He built a family life. But he knew there were things he was holding on to.  

“It wasn’t until I went to a Project Odyssey workshop with Wounded Warrior Project that I was able to start letting go — I had to let go of the soldier who passed in the helicopter, with the new understanding that letting go doesn’t mean forgetting,” Jake said. When Jake removed the memorial bracelet, a Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) teammate replaced it with a black WWP bracelet with the word “Service” inscribed in it. It was fitting. “My life has always been about service.”

Soon after completing college courses, Jake achieved his instrument flying rating, accrued more flying hours toward his commercial rating, and found a new path to service. He was offered a job teaching young people aviation concepts, flight simulation, and drone flying at a private school near Auburn, Alabama.

Jake used this opportunity to create a new aviation curriculum and incorporated drone flying into the lesson plans. In addition, he successfully pulled a group of highly motivated students into a drone demonstration team. Soon, they were choreographing drone shows and sharing their flight skills with the community.

Flying in New Directions
Jake’s Army-tested perseverance and his ability to think outside the box inspired students to try something that had never been done before. Soon, Jake was tapped to teach more students around the region.

Students in Jake’s “Intro to Drones” course had the chance to fly drones and learn most of the private pilot certification requirements. They organized into a 10-person team and manually flew the drones to background music. They were invited to headline a nighttime airshow in Florida.

“I’m humbled to be able to help young people accelerate in their path to flight,” Jake said. “In most cases, students just need a little guidance figuring out how to reach their goals.” Jake prepares them to attain their pilot licenses and have that under their belts when they get to college.  

“I learned that I’m a teacher – that’s who I am as a person,” Jake said. To expand his teaching portfolio, Jake started consulting for other organizations and eventually decided to form his own business. He spent the summer offering one-day aviation camps and going into YMCAs in the region to teach young people the basics of aviation. He generously advises and shares his passion for aviation with students from all walks of life.

“If anyone has questions about careers in the aviation industry, I try to help them find a pathway to do what they want to do,” Jake said. He also volunteers his time to help students and fellow veterans.

“I think about the pathways that brought me here, and Wounded Warrior Project is such an integral part of that,” Jake said. “How could I not want to give back and share with others?”  

“Wounded Warrior Project helped me to see that there’s still a brotherhood out there — with men and women who served — that continues after the military. There is still a mission.”

In this phase of his life, Jake is tapping into new technologies while keeping his original purpose of serving others. “Through this new venture, I hope to continue answering the call to help others,” Jake said. “I love the challenge of continuously reinventing myself as the aviation industry changes. I also understand it’s important to stay energized.”

To replenish his energy, Jake attended a second Project Odyssey — this time with a new perspective. “Managing PTSD is a lifelong process. I needed another outpouring of water to refill my cup. I learned 10 times more than I did the first time, and that helped move me to a place where I can help others.”

Learn more about WWP’s Project Odyssey and other WWP mental health programs to assist warriors on their journeys to successful transitions.

Contact: Raquel Rivas — Public Relations, rrivas@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.426.9783

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.